Hello to Pope Benedict

This week, the Catholic pope (Benedict the XVI) started a week-long visit to the US. It was billed as “a teaching trip”. Pity it wasn’t “a learning trip”.

On Wednesday, the pope conveyed:
I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society… Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth.
I wonder what “truth” he might mean. Something tells me that it’s not the closed-system truth: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Is it, by any chance, the closed-system “Gospel truth” – which he knows in his heart is true because he has faith (instilled in him by his strict, religious father)? Wouldn’t it be great if he meant truth in the open system known as reality and which can be asymptotically approached using the scientific method?! Don’t get your hopes up.

To see his meaning more clearly, consider the following statement, which he made on Thursday to Catholic bishops [and to which I’ve added a few notes in square brackets]:
In a society that rightly values personal liberty, the Church needs to promote at every level of her teaching – in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction – an apologetics [viz., “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something”] aimed at affirming the truth [cough, cough] of Christian revelation, the harmony of faith and reason [Riiiiiight], and a sound understanding of freedom, seen in positive terms as a liberation both from the limitations of sin [since ‘sin’ is “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law”, then it would seem that the best way to gain “liberation… from the limitation of sin” is not to recognize any divinity, i.e., any god!] and for an authentic and fulfilling life. In a word, the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer [cough, cough], intellectually and practically, to real human problems. The “dictatorship of relativism” [hello?], in the end, is nothing less than a threat to genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth.
I wonder how a seemingly intelligent person can make such a dumb statement. Focusing on just one particular in his speech, what does he mean by “the dictatorship of relativism”? I could understand “dictatorship of absolutism”: it’s been practiced by clerics ever since their “profession” first polluted our planet. But if by ‘relativism’ Benedict means anything in the context of morality, surely such ‘relativism’ depends on circumstances, and whereas circumstances almost always change, then how could anyone dictate relativism? – save, of course, for phony prophets (or better “profits”) who claim they know the future!

Which makes me wonder, further: is Benedict dumb or is he just ignorant, i.e., the product of poor education? Does he really “believe” the nonsense he preaches or is he just another con artist, saying whatever it takes to keep the cash flowing?

In that regard, two weeks ago I ended a post (entitled “Truth” and Consequences) with the statement:
…I expect that most clerics are too dumb or too poorly educated to realize that religious truth isn’t real and scientific truth can’t be realized, but I suspect that leading clerics in every religion know that they’re pedaling stupidity but are hooked on the profits that their con games provide.
So then, in the case of the “leading cleric” Benedict, is my suspicion validated?

Well, with an appropriate nod of acknowledgment to the scientific method, suppose we were to undertake what to Benedict would probably be a shocking suggestion, namely, to try to reach a conclusion based on evidence. Thus, as a start, consider the following assessment of Benedict, written by “Father” Richard John Neuhaus:
This Augustinian pope [Benedict] has a very high estimate of human reason, and in his United Nations address this week I expect he will address the rational grounds for commitment to human rights and the dignity of the human person [as he did, on Friday]. Reason was also the centerpiece of his “controversial” lecture at Regensburg University in September, 2006, where he challenged Muslims to recognize that the use of violence in advancing religion is “to act against reason and therefore to act against the nature of God.”
To those who might complain that Benedict provides no evidence that “reason… [is] the nature of God”, Benedict already provided a response in his Regensburg address. In essence, Benedict takes as “Gospel truth” the dumb statement in the Bible at John 1,1: “In the beginning was the word [or in the original Greek, “the logos”, one translation for which is ‘reason’]… and the word [or logos or logic or reason] was God.”

Neat, huh? For Benedict, “truth” is whatever’s written in his “holy book”: if John said “and the [reason] was God”, then that’s “the truth”. That is, for Benedict to accept something as true, apparently all that’s necessary is for some otherwise-unknown Greek cleric (John) to have claimed it to be true and then for other clerics (and politicians, such as “the butcher” Emperor “Saint” Constantine) to adopt it as part of the “Gospel truth”. That’s truth by dictatorial fiat or even as voted upon by “the elect” – and now, it’s truth by convention. It needs no data to support it; its predictions needn’t be tested experimentally; it’s just “the truth”. Any other questions?

To be sure, the otherwise-unknown Greek cleric (John) was almost certainly just trying to get more Greeks to convert to Christianity – promoting what he thought would sell. To try to sell it, he capitalized on the fact that for the Greek intelligentsia, reason (logic, the logos) had a long history. Thus, at least 600 years before the cleric John added his contribution to the fable about Jesus, the Greek mystic Pythagoras (c.580 – 500 BCE) said: “Reason is immortal; all else, mortal.” Also, a contemporary of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.540 – c.480 BCE, who had no use for Pythagoras, saying “Pythagoras is the chief captain of swindlers”) said: “It is wise to listen, not to me but to the logos, and to confess that all things are one.” And of course there was Plato, who said: “It may be that someday there will come forth from God a Word, a Logos, who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain” – and if the mystic Plato said it, you bet that mystic Christians would take it to be “the truth”. Thus, what John was saying, in effect, was just: “Hey, fellow Greeks, the Logos that Pythagoras and Heraclitus were talking about, and that Plato suggested might come, actually came – and was crucified.”

But it’s all so silly! Pythagoras’ nonsense about reason being immortal should’ve been clobbered with something similar to: “Whaddya mean that reason is ‘immortal’; it isn’t even alive; it’s simply a set of basic scientific principles, primarily that some things exist (that is, A is identically A, i.e., A ≡ A) and are distinct (that is, A is not identically not A, i.e., A ≢ ¬A). Heraclitus’ logos seems to have been that it wasn’t Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air that was the “primary stuff” of the universe, but it was fire: “This world… ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.” And as for Plato’s speculation, “It may be that someday there will come forth from God a Word, a Logos, who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain”, indeed it may happen – but I’d put the chances of it ever occurring to be about 1 part in 10^500 (i.e., roughly the same as the probability that “God” exists).

Much more significantly in a quest to try to understand Benedict, however, is that from his acceptance of the idea that “reason… is the nature of God”, Benedict apparently doesn’t see that he’s severely restricting “the nature of [his] God”! That is, Benedict apparently never learned that reason has severe limitations. To be sure, reason is a great tool: with it, by applying the scientific principles that things exist (A ≡ A) and most are distinct (A ≢ ¬A), we can proceed (as Ayn Rand said) with “noncontradictory identification”. But reason, alone, can never produce new information: with reasoning, all we can do is rearrange, re-examine, restate… existing information. For example, even Einstein’s reasoned result that E = mc^2 is “just” a generalization of Galileo's conclusion that the principles of physics should be the same for observers in uniform relative motion, a restatement of the experimental results of Michelson and Morley that the speed of light is the same for such observers, and the scientific principles of logic contained in the algebra Einstein used. As another example, it’s therefore asinine to attempt to try to “prove” the existence of any god (or anything!) using reasoning. All so-called “proofs” of God’s existence MUST contain (hidden within their premisses) the assumption that God exists. The existence of anything is simply a hypothesis – whose predictions should then be tested. For example, if I exist, then I should be able to start a new paragraph, now.

And with respect to limitations of reasoning, most significant is that, again and again throughout history, reasoning has led to some horribly erroneous conclusions. For example, consider the following reasoning by Benedict’s apparent hero, “Saint” Augustine (354 – 430 CE):
God… did not intend that His rational creature… should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation – not man over man, but man over the beasts… And this is why we do not find the word ‘slave’ in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name [this alleged ‘sin’ was to see his father, the drunken lout Noah, naked]. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature… The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow – that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishment to every variety of offence…
That’s how Augustine “justified” slavery. Notice that Augustine made no error in reasoning (no mistakes in the mechanics of deduction, such as shifting meanings of words, misinterpreting conjunctions or conditionals, mangling syntax, and so on, through the many potential logical fallacies). Nonetheless, Augustine made a horrible, fundamental error: he started from the unstated premiss that the Bible is “true” – which is the same stupid error that Benedict makes.

In fact, it’s easy to demonstrate that the Bible isn’t true (and similarly for the Quran and the Book of Mormon). As scientific treatises, it’s so obvious that such “holy books” are trash that it’s not worth dwelling on – although I admit that sometimes it’s fun to do so, just for the laughs! As policy documents, also, those “holy books” are loaded with garbage – as I demonstrate elsewhere. Consequently, if one’s reasoning starts from the premiss that the Bible is “true”, then the probability is high that the conclusion will be either trash or garbage (e.g., that this-that-and-the-other thing are “abominations before the Lord”). In computer lingo, it’s called GIGO: Garbage In; Garbage Out.

Admittedly, though, there are times when Garbage In can yield something useful out – especially if one ignores hidden premisses. For example, no doubt Benedict would argue that, whereas God rules the universe and has commanded that we be kind to one another, then we’d be well advised to be kind to one another. Most people probably agree with the conclusion, but some of us find the premisses to be silly. As we see it, the hidden premisses and the trivial (almost circular) reasoning is as follows: through experience, social animals (such as elephants, dolphins, and humans) found that it’s better to live in communities in which members are kind to one another; therefore, we’d be well advised to be kind to one another (because it’s generally found that “What goes around generally comes back around”). Looked at that way, Benedict-type “reasoning” breaks the sound (albeit trivial and almost circular) argument, discards the fact that morality is derived from experience, and replaces it with tangential nonsense about the existence of some God (with whom he just happens to be in contact, who just happens to need more money, and who just happens to have assigned him as collecting agent).

A specific example of an essentially circular argument broken with a silly tangential premiss is contained in Benedict’s UN speech, presented on Friday:
The principle of “responsibility to protect” was considered by the ancient ius gentium [viz., “law of peoples” or “common law”] as the foundation of every action taken by those in government with regard to the governed: at the time when the concept of national sovereign States was first developing, the Dominican Friar Francisco de Vitoria… described this responsibility as an aspect of natural reason shared by all nations, and the result of an international order whose task it was to regulate relations between peoples. Now, as then, this principle has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom.
Stripped of its tangential (and stupid) reference to “the Creator”, the essence of the argument is: whereas people have always desired freedom (no doubt because they found that freedom is beneficial to their survival), therefore, any responsible regulation of people by any government should promote the people’s freedom (subject, of course, to associated responsibilities). What’s God got to do with it?!

Although such cases of reasoning with Garbage In and something useful coming out can occur, Benedict would be well-advised to learn to be skeptical: it’s wise to assume that even error-free reasoning rarely leads to a conclusion more reliable than the premisses used. Thus, if the probability of the truth of the premiss “God exists” (a premiss used by Augustine in his above-quoted argument “justifying” slavery and a premiss on which all of Benedict’s religious arguments depend) is only about 1 part in 10^500 (as I suggested in an earlier post), then the probability of the truth of any conclusion that either Augustine or Benedict (or any cleric) reaches should be expected, similarly, to be no larger than 1 part in 10^500. For example, the probabilities of the truth of Benedict’s conclusions that “good” people (viz., those who obey the clerics) will live in bliss for eternity in Heaven, that “bad” people (viz., those who evaluate things for themselves) are headed for eternal torture in Hell, that various activities are “abominations before the Lord”, etc., are almost certainly no larger than 1 part in 10^500.

But Benedict’s displays of ignorance (or deception?) certainly aren’t limited to the above quotations. For example, in his encyclical (viz., “teaching letter”) on Love, he states:
Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God – an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.
I’m tempted to say that no sane person could make such a stupid statement, but I’ll try to say it a little more delicately: either Benedict is ignorant (possibly because he’s dumb or possibly because he’s had an absolutely atrocious education – both cases leading to his being essentially clueless about logical reasoning and critical thinking) or he knows that he’s pedaling pure, unadulterated balderdash (and is probably hooked on the profits that his con game provides).

I expect that you’ll come to a similar conclusion if you’ll look again at his claims. Thus, first look again at: “Faith… [opens] up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason.” Riiiiight. So does cocaine (so I’ve heard); that is, new horizons in imagination, unconstrained by reality. Next there’s his claim: “It [faith] is also a purifying force for reason itself.” Hello? Any chance for an explanation for the string of words: “purifying force for reason”?

For some eerie reason, Benedict reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s (i.e., the logician Charles Dodgson’s) Humpty Dumpty:
“There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you’!”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Maybe why Benedict reminds me of Humpty Dumpty is that I have the sneaking suspicion that Benedict plans to be master.

And then in the above quotation from Benedict there’s his: “faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself”? Hello? What “blind spots”? What is meant by making reasoning “more fully itself”?! Is he referring to reasoning errors? Those come, for example, from starting from unreliable premisses (e.g., “God exists”), from errors in logic (e.g., shifting the meaning of words), and so on, including violating the rules of logic (e.g., if things don’t continue to be distinct). In fact, in Aristotelian logic, things aren’t allowed even to change – which makes me hope that Benedict isn’t an Aristotelian as well as an Augustinian.

And then there’s the pinnacle of stupidity (duplicity?) in Benedict’s statement: “Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” Hello? The “proper object” of reason is noncontradictory identification, to determine conclusions that are logically consistent with the premisses, so that the probability that any conclusion is true is at least as great as the probability that the weakest premiss is true. ‘Faith’ (in the usual religious sense of holding some belief more strongly that is warranted by evidence) has no place in sound reasoning: if a premiss is introduced on faith, that is, if a premiss is introduced that’s unsupported by evidence (i.e., whose probability of validity is unknown), then any reasoning based on a premiss of unknown validity should be expected to lead to a conclusion of similarly unknown validity. Again: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

If you are thinking that Benedict couldn’t possibly be so ignorant as the above quotations suggest, then I’ll just ignore your premature conclusion and provide additional evidence. For example, in his second encyclical (on hope) he states:
Yes indeed, reason is God’s great gift to man [which is nonsense: reason is based on the scientific principles (discovered by fish, monkeys, and babies) that things exist and are distinct] and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil… Let us [the Royal “us”, I presume] put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope… Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their mission…
Hello? “Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope”? Darn: there goes my hope for quickly getting to the end of Benedict’s garbage! “Reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and mission”? I already commented on that garbage; it’s the same nonsense as in his first encyclical: reason needs an injection of faith like a jet engine needs an ingestion of a flock of geese!

What reason always does need, however, is to be tested against reality. Deductive reasoning starts from premisses, and the probability of the truth of every premiss needs to be evaluated by testing its predictions experimentally. Both deductive and inductive inferences end with conclusions, and again, the scientific method must be applied to test for the probability that each conclusion is true. In fact, one definition of the scientific method is simply: from the best available data, reason as best you can, and then, get some new data – to demonstrate to yourself how dumb your reasoning was!

Meanwhile, to further test how dumb Benedict might be, consider his description: “reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil.” What, pray tell, is he trying to say? Does he mean that one needs faith (no doubt he means faith in his god) to be able to differentiate between good and evil? According to Socrates’ test, that’s dumb. Socrates said: "There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance." Yet, I admit that I think Socrates was a little too harsh with that assessment – or maybe his comment has been poorly translated. I would prefer:
There is only one good, willingness to learn, and one evil, refusal.
But either way, the clear indictment is that Benedict – and similarly, all clerics of all religions – are promoting evil, be if from their ignorance, their refusal to learn, or their purposeful deception. And worse, as Goethe said: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.” Thus, I’m sorry to conclude that, regardless of Benedict’s intelligence or motives, the essence of his current “teaching trip” (similar to the acts of all Muslim terrorists) is “ignorance in action.”

And so, as I lamented at the outset of this post, it’s a pity that Benedict wasn’t here on “a learning trip” rather than “a teaching trip”. My expectation is that, from experiences with his strict, religious father and with his training in the Hitler Youth movement and in his seminary, he learned how to obey. Is he, I wonder, now too old to learn how to evaluate? Is he able to change?

But questions aside and returning to the goal of this inquiry, I conclude that the evidence is equivocal. Maybe Benedict isn’t so ignorant as he seems. Maybe he already knows that he’s pedaling nonsense – but he’s hooked on the power, prestige, and other profits that his con game provides. To be sure, paying for the habits of pedophiliac priests has cut into profits, but he still manages to be involved in the sexual activities of ~1.2 billion people (that's quite an impressive feat for an 81 year old!), he has the prestige of being met by the US President at the airport and to speak at the UN, he still has his bright red, expensive shoes and a fancy dunce cap to wear, and of course, he still gets to ride around in his pope-mobile. Yet, I admit that my first impression is that Benedict is neither too dumb nor overly hooked on the profits of his con game. Instead, his ignorance appears to be derived from his poor education, which has apparently led him to his faulty reliance on reasoning rather than on the scientific method. As a result, I would suggest (and I expect that even most Christians would agree) that it would be more fitting if he rode around not in a pope-mobile but on another stolen jackass.

In any case and as with so many scientific inquiries, this one into the character of Benedict doesn’t seem to provide a definitive answer, forcing the need to test predictions of relevant hypotheses with appropriate experiments. And solely to try to generate a little more enthusiasm in the needed experiments, I’ll offer the following services.

To enlist, those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is just ignorant should now send me $1, those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is just another con artist should now send me $10, those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is dumb should now send me $100, and those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is intelligent, well educated, and in fact knows “the truth” should now send me $1,000. In the future, as relevant evidence accumulates (e.g., if during his papacy Benedict should make a proclamation something similar to, “To all Catholics: We sincerely apologize for all the mistakes, lies, and deceptions of which your Church has been guilty during its long history, and to try to make amends, we hereby return the trillions of dollars that we fraudulently collected from you”), then I'll distribute the collected money appropriately -- with God as my witness.

[Wow! Maybe I missed my calling. Where does one sign up to become a cleric? Does one just put up a shingle and start collecting money? Oh, yeah, sure: ya gotta have a “holy book”. Well, okay, I’ve got one over at www.zenofzero.net, and as you can readily verify by yourself: just like all other “holy books”, mine’s full of holes.]

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